I provided a secular invocation on behalf of the NEPA Freethought Society at the June 12, 2014 Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting.
Following several objections to the government-led Judeo-Christian prayers at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings [see my July 2013 speech and June 2013 speech], a letter to the editor published in a local newspaper, an appearance on local television news, a letter Freedom From Religion Foundation sent to council, suggested compromises to make meetings more inclusive [see my May 29, 2014 speech], a press release, and a lengthy interview with a local newspaper reporter, I delivered a secular invocation at the June 12, 2014 Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting.
Council did not allow me (or anyone else) to provide an invocation in place of council’s recurring ‘Almighty God in Heaven’ prayer during meetings, but allowed me to provide a secular invocation during the public comment section. Sadly, council does not want to budge.
While I am dissatisfied with being sequestered to the public comment section rather than being allowed time to speak in place of council’s prayer, I took the opportunity to deliver a secular invocation which included a healthy dose of skepticism and parts of my ‘life philosophy.’
Following my address to council, Jerry Lynott, writer for The Times Leader, mentioned my secular invocation in an article published the next day.
Below is a video of my invocation and a rough transcript. Enjoy.
My name is Justin Vacula. I am a co-organizer and spokesperson for the NEPA Freethought Society – a social, educational, activist, and philosophical coalition of atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, and skeptics predicated on community which upholds the separation of church and state and promotes critical thinking.
I asked to provide a secular invocation at the start of council meetings to provide an alternative to the government-led Judeo-Christian prayer offered by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle which begins each meeting.
Council refused my request to offer an invocation at the beginning of the meeting, but allowed me to offer a secular invocation during the public comment section. I lament council’s decision to continue exclusionary prayer led by government officials at these public meetings. Further, I am dissatisfied with council barring members of the public from offering opening invocations in place of the government-led prayer.
Today, I will provide a modified secular invocation from the organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State — an inclusive message which council can use as a guideline for future meetings so that meeting invocations are more inclusive.
We come here to do the business of local government. Government officials have pledged to improve the quality of this community and are entrusted with doing so.
As we gather, we are reminded that although we have differences we are linked by our common humanity. When we work together to move our community forward in a spirit of mutual respect and common decency, we showcase what is best about our community, our state, and our nation.
We embrace many traditions and represent many demographics. We are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, humanists, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, Pagans, unaffiliated, uncertain, and so many other things. We are young and old and everything in between. We represent many races and nationalities. We identify as libertarian, liberal, progressive, and conservative.
To be sure, we do not agree about everything and we often feel fiercely protective of what we do believe. But there is one thing on which we all agree. We share the goal of making our community the best place it can be. We unite here today with that noble aim and common purpose.
Citizens and government officials ought to enter meetings with a healthy dose of humility and doubt – being receptive to the ideas of others and having the willingness to change any and all of their beliefs given good reason, argument, and evidence. We ought to seek and welcome challenges to our beliefs. We should be concerned about whether our beliefs are justified and true.
Let us not have intellectual arrogance – outright dismissing the ideas of our detractors and declaring that our beliefs are non-negotiable, not up for debate or revision. Let us remember that our beliefs inform our actions and, because of this, often translate into real-world impact – having the potential to help or harm others. Let informed reason, evidence, and argument inform discourse not only at city council meetings, but also in all aspects of our lives. Demand good reasons, arguments, and evidence when people present claims. Thoroughly consider perspectives of those with whom you disagree.
For if we happen to discard our cherished beliefs, we make intellectual progress. While it may be difficult to admit being wrong or break away from tradition, changing our beliefs so that we perceive the world more accurately is a huge benefit – a sign of growth and maturity.
Let us remember horrid traditions in this community and nation which were justified mostly on the basis of ‘it was always done this way’ including coal mining which offered workers – boys and men who would work in extremely dangerous conditions – little to no protection. As we progress as a community and species, we make moral progress and break from tradition. Tradition alone is no justification for belief.
It is people, although they often disagree on matters they view as important, who come together to make change in our communities. It is through action, at local and even larger levels, by which we progress. It is through passionate debate, although it may seem uncomfortable, by which we challenge our own perspectives and learn from others – sometimes changing our own beliefs when there is good reason to do so.
It is my hope that at this council meeting and others – and even encounters in everyday life – that we work together to make change in our communities. It is my hope that we challenge ourselves and others to improve our quality of life. It is my hope that respect, when deserved, is extended to others. It is my hope that good argument, evidence, and reason guides the decisions of all within and outside of this room. Thank you.
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